by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Awareness protest at Fairmount & University, City Heights, August 5
Buried Alive 24/7 (with aerial photo of Pelican Bay)
“Debrief”/Snitch, Parole or Die
Hunger for Justice
Solitary Is Torture
Artcrafts made by prisoners in Tecate, Mexico — a right denied to California’s SHU inmates
As these words are written, prisoners incarcerated in the so-called SHU (pronounced “shoe” and variously standing for Special, Secure or Security Housing Unit) at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California have been on a hunger strike for 53 days. Eleven days ago, on August 18, an organization called the San Diego Committee for Prisoners’ Rights, reachable by phone at (619) 508-6756 or online via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/San-Diego-Committee-for-Prisoners-Rights/174419419310779, sponsored an event at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park to build support for the hunger strikers. It consisted of a showing of a 2011 documentary film, Concrete and Sunshine, about the vast expansion of the prison-industrial complex in California in the last 30 years, plus often heartrending live stories from the wives, sisters and other family members at Pelican Bay.
According to an in-depth article by Los Angeles Times reporter Paige St. John (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ff-ashker-20130729,0,1327999,full.story), the hunger strike began July 8. It was called by Todd Ashker and three other inmates being held in solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay SHU: Antonio “Chuco” Guillen, alleged leader of the Latino gang Nuestra Familia; Arturo “Tablas” Castellanos, a supposed member of the Mexican Mafia; and Ron Dewberry a.k.a. Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, alleged to belong to the Black Guerrilla Family.
Ashker, a white man whose body is covered in tattoos with white-supremacist symbols, and the others formed what they called the “Short Corridor Collective,” after the hallway on which their cells are located, in August 2012. Though many of the prisoners involved had landed in the SHU in the first place for racially motivated murders or assaults committed in prison, Ashker presented the group as “a collective effort initiated by a multiracial group of long-term, similarly situated (SHU) prisoners who decided enough is enough.”
According to Ashker, the white, Black and Latino members of the Short Corridor Collective reached an “agreement to end hostilities,” by which they would end racially motivated assaults on each other and focus on a common enemy — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which runs the state’s prisons — and the “informers, snitches, rats and obstructionists” who, according to the group’s statement, “use us against each other for their benefit!!”
In her article, St. John described the Pelican Bay SHU as “divided into pods of eight cells stacked four-wide and two-high, facing a blank wall. There are no bars. Each steel door is perforated to let in air and light. Once a day, that door slides open. The prisoner can enter an empty concrete ‘dog run’ for 90 minutes to exercise. Kept indoors for years, men in the SHU take on a ghostly pallor, as if dusted with flour. They get less canteen food than do other inmates, less clothing, and are allowed limited belongings, fewer visits and no phone calls. Every privilege, from mail to medical care, is rationed.”
What’s more, the length of time a prisoner must spend in the SHU is open-ended. It’s not like “the hole” in prison movies, where a particular infraction against prison rules got you locked in solitary for a specific period of time. “For those accused of gang involvement, the SHU is an indefinite sentence,” St. John explained. “More than 400 have been inside Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than a decade; 78, including Ashker, have been held there for more than two decades.” The prisoners’ mental-health complaints — “anger, anxiety, depression, insomnia, inability to concentrate and loss of a sense of time” — are similar to those experienced by prisoners in solitary in other states and countries, which has led at least one United Nations official to declare solitary a form of torture.
Nobody is actually sentenced to a SHU in a court of law. Assignments to SHU’s are made by prison officials on their own authority. According to a leaflet produced by supporters of the hunger strike, “Thousands of prisoners are in solitary based on the prison’s determination that they are associated with a prison gang, not for committing a violent act or breaking a prison rule. The evidence of gang association can be as trivial as who signed their birthday card, what books they read, the art they draw, or who they say ‘Hi!’ to. It is often based on general statements of secret witnesses who have provided this information to get out of solitary confinement themselves.”
That process is what CDCR calls “debriefing” and the prisoners call “snitching.” Its abolition is one of the five key demands of the hunger strikers. “Prisoners are accused of being active participants of the prison gangs using false evidence and are sent to long-term isolation (SHU),” the strikers’ demand sheet explains. “They can escape these torturous conditions only if they ‘debrief’; that is, become informants, ‘snitch’ on other prisoners. Debriefing produces false information (wrongly landing other prisoners in SHU) and can endanger the lives of debriefing prisoners and their families.” It’s because of this state policy that prisoners grimly joke that there are only three ways out of the SHU: debriefing, parole for the crime that put them in prison in the first place, or death.
Other demands of the hunger strikers include an end to “group punishment and administrative abuse,” particularly the CDCR’s practice of punishing racially motivated assaults in prison by putting all the inmates of the attacker’s race, not just the attacker himself, in the SHU; an end to long-term solitary confinement; adequate and nutritious food; and education, self-help treatment, religious counseling and other “constructive programming” aimed at helping inmates become productive, law-abiding citizens when they’re finally released. California used to call this “rehabilitation” until the state redefined the mission of its prison system in the early 1980’s and said its goal was just to punish prisoners, not to reform them.
The Families Speak Out
The August 18 event was introduced by Avon (the speakers identified themselves by first names only), an activist with the San Diego Committee for Prisoners’ Rights and the peace group ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). He announced that many other organizations had endorsed the program, including the Committee Against Police Brutality, the Association of Raza Educators and groups supporting global justice and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. (At the end of the program this author, a board member of Activist San Diego, announced that group’s endorsement of the Pelican Bay hunger strike by a unanimous vote of its board.) Avon talked about his group’s visibility actions not only around the Pelican Bay strike but other abuses, including mass detentions of alleged undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
After the Concrete and Sunshine film was screened, family members of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers spoke. “My brother has been in the Pelican Bay SHU for eight years,” said Amber, and he is not ‘the worst of the worst’” — referring to how CDCR officials in general and the agency’s head, Jeffrey Beard, refer to the strikers. Amber read a series of letters she received from her brother, the first written on day 3 and the next on day 17.
“The people from Sacramento arrive today,” Amber’s brother wrote on day 17. “CDCR has started to spread misinformation, but the strike is the bright light and CDCR are the cockroaches that flee when the light is turned on. They prefer to work in the dark, but this light will shine on any falsehoods.”
The attitude of CDCR officials that especially upset Amber, her brother, the other hunger strikers and their families was vividly depicted by Jeffrey Beard in an op-ed he published in the August 6 Los Angeles Times. “Some prisoners claim this strike is about living conditions in the Security Housing Units, commonly called SHU’s, which house some of the most dangerous inmates in California,” Beard wrote. “Don’t be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.”
Beard quoted two prisoners who participated in a previous hunger strike in 2011. “Honestly, we did not care about human rights,” one of them said. “The objective was to get into the general population, or mainline, and start running our street regiments again.”
Another prisoner Beard quoted said, “We knew we could tap big-time support through this tactic, but we weren’t trying to improve the conditions in the SHU; we were trying to get out of the SHU to further our gang agenda on the mainline.”
But for Amber, her brother’s struggle isn’t about maintaining a prison gang, or even improving the conditions within the SHU. It’s about ending his isolation so she and her family members will have the same ability to connect with him as relatives of normal prisoners have. “My niece hasn’t been able to hug her dad, kiss him or even hold his hand,” Amber said. “Solitary affects not only the prisoners but the family members. Since 2011 we have been fighting this struggle. … Prisoners are still human beings. They’re doing their time for their crimes, and nowhere in their sentence does it say they should be tortured.”
Marta, another sister of a Pelican Bay hunger striker, spoke in Spanish and also read a letter from her brother. “If I cry in front of a guard, I hand him a weapon,” her brother Luis wrote her. Marta herself accused law enforcement of “taking control of the lives of our kids” and said both she and her brother have been supported by their religious faith through their ordeal.
“CDCR is strong, but love conquers all,” Marta said. “Victory is near, but some may not see it” — a reference to her claim that some of the hunger strikers were showing signs of organ failure and other long-term damage even before the 45-day benchmark usually used by doctors as the point where the bodily harm from long-term starvation becomes irreversible. “My name is Marta, but my name is also Luis,” she concluded. [Marta’s remarks were translated here by Charles Nelson.]
“My cousin is suffering and not eating because all he wants is five basic rights every human being should have, what we mean when we say ‘equality,’” said Kima. “Each person today representing a person in prison is demanding equal rights. I’ll admit that for a few years, my cousin was out of sight, out of mind. Then I remembered [he had been in prison] eight years and as long as he’s still alive, he’s still my family. So I went up and drove 16 hours to see this cousin of mine I barely knew. I was too little to remember, but with Latinos it’s all about family. I drove up to see him, and when I saw him I didn’t know him at all.”
Kima said that she and the cousin she hadn’t known since she was a young girl connected over their religious and family ties. “When I spoke to him, it changed my world,” she said. “The same desires that run through me run through him. He is the strongest and most positive person I have ever spoken to. Nobody in my life has ever spoken to me like he has. How was it I forgot he was my life, my blood? So I went back, and every single time I got more from him. He never spoke about his situation, only about how I was, how things were out here, and how I could make it better. I want equality for him, and for him to be able to live a better life, even where he is.”
Since the August 18 event, the stalemate between the strikers and CDCR has continued. According to a dispatch from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Web site, http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/, “California prisoner hungers strike advocates and supporters continue their efforts to compel state decision makers to negotiate with hunger strikers as they endure their 52nd day without food.” They had hoped for meaningful talks with Jeffrey Beard and other CDCR officials at the start of August, but Beard’s combative, dismissive L. A. Times op-ed August 6 showed he was in no mood to negotiate or even acknowledge the legitimacy of the strike. The strike has spread from Pelican Bay to other California prisons as well, including Corcoran, where the Solidarity site reports, “Legal observers … say that the 70 people still on strike at that facility are facing harsh relation by prison officials including the denial of medical care — even for those coming off strike — and the confiscation of personal property.”
The Solidarity site also reports that CDCR is trying to break the Pelican Bay strike by transferring some of the organizers to other prisons in the California system. “They presently have us four main reps on ‘G row’ by ourselves for now. No telling how long we’ll be staying here,” said Pelican Bay striker and Short Corridor Collective representative Aurturo Castellanos in an August 27 statement quoted on the site. According to the site, Castellanos is one of the prisoners Jeffrey Beard was referring to in his op-ed as a prison gang leader who’s participating in the strike just to re-establish the power of his gang in Pelican Bay’s general population.
Of CDCR’s attacks on the strikers, the statement by Castellanos and his fellow strike leaders said, “The world is now a witness, as Gov. [Jerry] Brown and his appointee Beard demonstrate callous and deliberate indifference to the extreme forms of inexcusable suffering our loved ones and ourselves are subjected to in our fight for humane treatment of the prisoner class of human beings. … CDCR’s decades of human rights violations is the catalyst for thousands coming together and taking up this protest. … They fail to see the writing on the wall. … CDCR is going to change whether they like it or not. This only motivates us more.”
Other concerns expressed on the Solidarity Web site include the Brown administration’s recent appeal to a court for authority to force-feed the hunger strikers, and the state’s refusal to provide the strikers health care. According to the site, more than 120 health care professionals have signed an open letter supporting the strikers. “As health care providers, we are issuing this statement to register our concern with reports that the hunger strikers are being denied appropriate medical care,” this letter read. “Where there has been a concerted attempt by the authorities to censor the strikers, and to keep the strike out of the news, dozens of letters from affected strikers at prisons across the state have reached supporters on the outside. These letters repeat similar details of medical neglect and abuse.”
A Memoir Questioned
A bizarre incident occurred during the showing of Concrete and Sunshine at the Centro Cultural August 18. Among the literature tables at the entrance to the event was one run by Veracruz Pedroza Sanchez selling Prison Letters: Walking to Honor. The book is about her relationship with her cousin, Fernando Julio “Chunky” Sanchez, and features extended quotes from the letters he wrote her while in prison. “Chunky” was not in a SHU; he died tragically at age 25 when the truck returning him from a work detail in a fire zone was involved in an accident.
Three-quarters of the way through the film, a middle-aged Latina angrily approached Veracruz’ literature table and knocked the box containing her books to the ground. She then started screaming at Veracruz, saying she was “Chunky”’s mother Isabel and Veracruz’ book was illegal because it had been published without her permission. “You have no right to use my son’s name and likeness!” she told Veracruz, adding that she was going to organize a boycott of Veracruz’ book within the Latino community. Due to Isabel’s objection, the organizers had to stop the movie while she delivered her complaints in a loud, hectoring voice. She especially objected to Veracruz’ book being sold inside the Centro Cultural because that was where she and “Chunky”’s father had been married.
Later, after the Pelican Bay prisoners’ families had made their presentations, the event organizers allowed Isabel’s daughter to speak. “I want to apologize for my mother getting upset,” she said. “My brother was a prisoner and he passed away in a fire truck about five days before we were supposed to see him. We were six in my family, and my brother was the baby. Before he passed he wrote a letter to my dad acknowledging he wasn’t living up to his fullest potential. … Even in these places that are so hard and so unnatural, you can find peace. I’m really grateful you came out today. We didn’t say [“Chunky”] was a prisoner; we said he was a brother who helped his family, and even now that he’s dead he helps us.”
“It’s horrible that our family members have no rights,” Marta, Luis’s brother, said at the end of the event — this time speaking in English. “In Tecate, Mexico [the prisoners] can create all these things [referring to artworks from Mexican prisoners that were for sale at one of the back tables]. The people in the SHU are so smart but we can’t even get a phone call. They made mistakes, but they could create so much, and the CDCR just wants to keep them in isolation.”
Contacts to Support the Prisoners
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/
San Diego Committee for Prisoners’ Rights, (619) 508-6756, online via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/San-Diego-Committee-for-Prisoners-Rights/174419419310779
http://www.change.org/petitions/support-pelican-bay-shu-prisoners-five-core-demands-hunger-strike (online petition in support of the strikers and their demands)
http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/51040/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=11455 (another online petition criticizing CDCR’s “refusal to recognize, address, and implement the changes outlined by prisoners being held in Security Housing Units [SHU’s]”)
https://ssl.capwiz.com/aclu/ca/issues/alert/?alertid=62869506&type=ST (American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego/Imperial Counties’ campaign against Governor Brown’s call for building even more prisons in California)
Veracruz Sanchez, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, Web www.verasanchez.com (contact to buy Prison Letters: Walking to Honor)
The Pelican Bay Strikers’ Statement in FullGreetings. We begin this update on where things stand with our struggle to force an end to long-term solitary confinement and additional major reforms to the prison system with a shout-out of solidarity, love, and respect to all of our supporters and people of conscience worldwide.
As many are aware today marks the 51st day of our peaceful hunger strike. We continue to protest decades of solitary confinement; torture for the purposes of coercion. This is the third hunger strike in two years and yet nothing of real substance has changed for the majority of us.
We are now at a critical stage, where each minute that passes is extremely taxing mentally and physically. Many of us participating since day one are suffering what may be irreversible damage, and are facing a very real possibility of death. It is a fact that a major cause of death during long fasts is heart attack. This may come at any moment for us… When it does, we’re done for.
That said, you may all rest assured that our commitment to this worthy cause remains undaunted. The world is now a witness, as Gov. Brown and his appointee [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey] Beard demonstrate callous and deliberate indifference to the extreme forms of inexcusable suffering our loved ones and ourselves are subjected to in our fight for humane treatment of the prisoner class of human beings…
Gov. Brown’s response to our peaceful action has not been silence, as so many presume—rather, it has been loud and clear via the propaganda and rhetoric being spewed by his mouthpiece Dr. Beard. The fascist police state prisoncrats have attempted to misdirect the attention and the growing condemnation of their human rights abuses. They have tried to disrupt public support by dredging up 20-40 year old histories that are for the most part portrayed in a false light. They have desperately tried to justify and further their diabolical agenda, and indeed expand the numbers of prisoners (and loved ones outside) being tortured—to the point of death, insanity, and false confessions. They have the audacity to claim our push for reform is a “gang power play,” and that many prisoners have been “coerced into participation.” This is another tactic aimed at misleading the public so as to maintain the status quo with impunity. They have tried to ignore the fact that our collective peaceful efforts, and our call to “end group hostilities,” are contrary to their propaganda. CDCR’s decades of human rights violations is the catalyst for thousands coming together and taking up this protest…
Another clear demonstration of where Brown, Beard, et al. stand is their response to this peaceful action. They have directed their subordinates to subject participants, and non-participants alike, to systematic retaliation including, but not limited to: additional isolation and sensory deprivation via placement in the Administrative Segregation stand-alone building; withholding mail and visits; blasting cold air into SHU and Ad-Seg cells; confiscating property; fabricating rule violations and alleging gang activity; cell-extractions; threats and intimidation; and mass relocation. They have rescinded so-called privileges granted in 2011-2013. And they have cut the number of allowable books from 10 (which has been a right for 23 years), down to 5. The above are only a few examples.
We are calling on all people of conscience to make their opposition heard. We urge the people to demand that the powers that be end this abuse now. Today. Before it it is too late for some of us. On Friday August 16, CDCR transferred 51 people on hunger strike from this Ad-Seg Unit down south to a medical facility in preparation for force feeding. This is where we’ll all be soon. Some of us are considering a challenge to such feeding. What’s going on in this nation that it has come to such a point? The people have the power to change things now. Know this: Our spirit and resolve remain strong and we know we can count on you all! Together we are making it happen, not only for ourselves, but, more importantly, for the generations to come.
With the Utmost Solidarity, Love, and Respect—Onward in Struggle,
Pelican Bay State Prison Short Corridor Collective
Todd Ashker, C-58191, PBSP-SHU
Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, PBSP-SHU
Antonio Guillen, P-81948, PBSP-SHU
Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, PBSP-SHU